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Playing with one’s own infant or infants under your care can be a rewarding yet challenging experience. During the early years of life, warm and responsive social interactions with adult caregivers are particularly important for scaffolding children’s learning and development. Play is a natural way to provide these high-quality social interactions. In fact, play occurs universally - even amongst animals. For example, animals such as lions may play with their offspring to teach necessary survival skills such as hunting. Research in psychology has been clear that good quality interactions with infants produce positive outcomes for the child. Some of these benefits include:
 
  • Developing a secure attachment with the caregiver, which helps develop future positive relationships with others.1, 2
  • Developing communication and language skills.3, 4
  • Creating trust in the infant by knowing the caregiver will attend to their physical and emotional needs5.
  • Fostering emotional development and self-regulation (controlling one’s own emotion, cognition and behaviour) is promoted when infants and caregivers share and match their positive emotions6.
 
Researchers at the University of Cambridge are investigating which specific processes are occurring in parent-infant play from both a neuroscience and behavioural perspective.
 
Dr. Vicky Leong is the director of the Baby-LINC lab where she studies how mothers and babies ‘get in sync’ with each others’ brain activity, and whether this brain synchronisation helps to support babies' early steps in learning. Vicky says:

“Babies are naturally playful, and they love sharing

play with adults too. But before they start to produce words, it can sometimes be hard to tell when babies are ready to play, how to draw them into a playful exchange and then sustain a high level of fun and engagement. Previous research has indicated that there are a few simple signals that can help adults to tune in to their infants during play. These signals include eye contact, using your baby’s name, using infant-directed speech and pointing. Our research is showing that these signals can literally put you on the same neural wavelength as your child!”

Dr. Ciara Laverty is working at the PEDAL centre and studies playful interactions between parents and babies:
 
“In my research, I am interested in how parents play with their young babies. I watch interactions between mums and babies/dads and babies when the babies are as young as four months old, and up until they are 24 months old. I am particularly interested in finding out which types of playful behaviours parents show during play with their baby. For example, are there any facial expressions that parents use to communicate that playtime is happening? Through this research, I am hoping to find out if there are any interesting differences between the way mums and dads play, as well as whether parent play changes as the babies grow.”
 
It is important that parents and caregivers remember that even little moments of play and interaction with babies contribute to positive development.
 
 

Play research in action

  • Make routine care times (changing nappies/diapers, bath time or feeding your child) playful moments.
  • When shopping for groceries you can sing, talk, laugh and make faces at your baby while you push the shopping trolley with them in it.
  • Read books with your child – even when they are very young.
  • Even getting ready for nap or bed time can be an opportunity for gentle play – singing songs or saying nursery rhymes.

 


You can watch a webinar organised by PlayFutures with Dr Vicky Leong, Dr Melissa Scarpate and Dr Ciara Laverty that was filmed in conjunction with this Play Piece here.

Ainsworth, M. (1989) Attachments beyond infancy (Journal Article)

Abstract:

Attachment theory is extended to pertain to developmental changes in the nature of children's attachments to parents and surrogate figures during the years beyond infancy, and to the nature of other affectional bonds throughout the life cycle. Various types of affectional bonds are examined in terms of the behavioral systems characteristic of each and the ways in which these systems interact. Specifically, the following are discussed: (a) the caregiving system that underlies parents' bonds to their children, and a comparison of these bonds with children's attachments to their parents; (b) sexual pair-bonds and their basic components entailing the reproductive, attachment, and caregiving systems; (c) friendships both in childhood and adulthood, the behavioral systems underlying them, and under what circumstances they may become enduring bonds; and (d) kinship bonds (other than those linking parents and their children) and why they may be especially enduring.

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January 1989
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44
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709-716
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Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment and loss. 1. Attachment (Book)

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Provides a comprehensive report on the mother-child bond and the emotional effects of and behavioral response to maternal deprivation.

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January 1969
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Erikson, E. (1939) Childhood and Society (Book)

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The landmark work on the social significance of childhood.
The original and vastly influential ideas of Erik H. Erikson underlie much of our understanding of human development. His insights into the interdependence of the individuals' growth and historical change, his now-famous concepts of identity, growth, and the life cycle, have changed the way we perceive ourselves and society. Widely read and cited, his works have won numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

Combining the insights of clinical psychoanalysis with a new approach to cultural anthropology, Childhood and Society deals with the relationships between childhood training and cultural accomplishment, analyzing the infantile and the mature, the modern and the archaic elements in human motivation. It was hailed upon its first publication as "a rare and living combination of European and American thought in the human sciences" (Margaret Mead, The American Scholar). Translated into numerous foreign languages, it has gone on to become a classic in the study of the social significance of childhood.

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January 1939
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Feldman, R. (2007) On the origins of background emotions: From affect synchrony to symbolic expression (Journal Article)

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Guided by Damasio's (2003) formulations on background emotions, this study examined the contour of infant affect during interactions with mother and father in relation to the emergence of symbolic expression. One hundred parents and infants were observed in face-to-face interactions and in play sessions at the toddler stage. Parent's and infants' affective states were coded in 1-s frames, and synchrony was assessed. Toddlers' play was microcoded for symbolic level and for reciprocity and intrusiveness. Infant affective contour with mother was rhythmic with 1 episode of positive arousal framed by social gaze. Affective contour with father contained several peaks of positive arousal of shorter duration. Symbolic complexity was comparable and preserved the parent-specific contours, with quicker latencies, higher frequencies, and shorter durations of complex symbolic episodes with father. Sequential relations emerged between parent's and child's symbolic expression, and maternal reciprocity and intrusiveness were sequentially linked to symbolic expansion or constriction, respectively. Parent-infant synchrony and the parent's support of toddler symbolic play predicted symbolic complexity. The need to include time in research on emotions and the dyadic origins of positive emotions are discussed.

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January 2007
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7
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601-611
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  • Symbolic play
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Leong, V. et al. (2017) Speaker gaze increases information coupling between infant and adult brains (Journal Article)

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When infants and adults communicate, they exchange social signals of availability and communicative intention such as eye gaze. Previous research indicates that when communication is successful, close temporal dependencies arise between adult speakers’ and listeners’ neural activity. However, it is not known whether similar neural contingencies exist within adult–infant dyads. Here, we used dual-electroencephalography to assess whether direct gaze increases neural coupling between adults and infants during screen-based and live interactions. In experiment 1 (n = 17), infants viewed videos of an adult who was singing nursery rhymes with (i) direct gaze (looking forward), (ii) indirect gaze (head and eyes averted by 20°), or (iii) direct-oblique gaze (head averted but eyes orientated forward). In experiment 2 (n = 19), infants viewed the same adult in a live context, singing with direct or indirect gaze. Gaze-related changes in adult–infant neural network connectivity were measured using partial directed coherence. Across both experiments, the adult had a significant (Granger) causal influence on infants’ neural activity, which was stronger during direct and direct-oblique gaze relative to indirect gaze. During live interactions, infants also influenced the adult more during direct than indirect gaze. Further, infants vocalized more frequently during live direct gaze, and individual infants who vocalized longer also elicited stronger synchronization from the adult. These results demonstrate that direct gaze strengthens bidirectional adult–infant neural connectivity during communication. Thus, ostensive social signals could act to bring brains into mutual temporal alignment, creating a joint-networked state that is structured to facilitate information transfer during early communication and learning.

Date:
January 2017
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114
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13290-13295
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Vallotton, C. et al. (2016) Parenting Supports for Early Vocabulary Development: Specific Effects of Sensitivity and Stimulation through Infancy (Journal Article)

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Growing recognition of disparities in early childhood language environments prompts examination of parent-child interactions, which support vocabulary. Research links parental sensitivity and cognitive stimulation to child language, but has not explicitly contrasted their effects, nor examined how effects may change over time. We examined maternal sensitivity and stimulation throughout infancy using two observational methods?ratings of parents? interaction qualities and coding of discrete parenting behaviors?to assess the relative importance of these qualities to child vocabulary over time and determine whether mothers make related changes in response to children's development. Participants were 146 infants and mothers, assessed when infants were 14, 24, and 36 months. At 14 months, sensitivity had a stronger effect on vocabulary than did stimulation, but the effect of stimulation grew throughout toddlerhood. Mothers? cognitive stimulation grew over time, whereas sensitivity remained stable. While discrete parenting behaviors changed with child age, there was no evidence of trade?offs between sensitive and stimulating behaviors, and no evidence that sensitivity moderated the effect of stimulation on child vocabulary. Findings demonstrate specificity of timing in the link between parenting qualities and child vocabulary, which could inform early parent interventions, and support a reconceptualization of the nature and measurement of parental sensitivity.

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January 2016
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22
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78-107
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  • Language
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